The room is almost vacant. A cluster of figures, some partnered, most lone, stand darkly before the soft glow, projected from a pensile rig, lighting a seated pair slowly making music. A pale man, eyes shut, hair shorn and sandy, strums a lulling chord and quietly solemnizes, “It’s the end of an era / what’s gone is fading fast.” Beside him sits an equally fair woman whose piled layers of black hair perfectly frame her androgynous features. She is bent over softly coaxing tones from a harmonium. He is Damon Krukowski, one-half of the sing-and-strum duo named after himself and his partner Naomi Yang. Better known to some as the rhythm section of underground legends Galaxie 500 (whose singer, Dean Wareham now leads Luna), the duo have been crafting their own frail psych-folk for over a decade now.
21 Jul 2002: Spaceland Los Angeles
Only two songs into the set and Krukowski is already elegizing. He completes the couplet, “And what you see in the mirror / it won’t last,” and launches into a radiant, wordless chorus of falsetto cries. The song is “Turn of the Century”, a tender lullaby culled from the duo’s 1998 album Playback Singers (Sub Pop).
On a layover to their hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts after a Japanese tour, the two booked tonight’s show for the stop-off. Krukowski, though not noticeably jet-lagged after the twelve-hour journey and sixteen-hour time difference, explains between songs that the band went to Japan on frequent-flyer miles and therefore had little say in their route. The audience emphatically chuckles. Such droll digressions pepper the duo’s brief set of hushed, somber songs with charm and humor, enhancing the intimacy of their performance. Before the raga-tinged drone of “Eye of the Storm”, Krukowski tells of playing, under subtle coercion, in a traditional Japanese garden during a tempest and, afterwards, of being taken aside by the plot’s proprietor to be questioned, in broken English, about the Boston Celtics.
The bulk of the set is nearly identical to the track listing of the group’s latest LP, Song to the Siren (Sub Pop), recorded live in San Sebastian, Spain with guitarist Michio Kurihara of Japanese acid-acoustic commune Ghost. Though, without Kurihara’s crystalline hues the material sounds rather bare and muted tonight. “The New World”, written with Ghost leader Masaki Batoh and originally on the eponymous album the Cambridge duo recorded with the Japanese stalwarts in 2000, lost its dense atmospherics. Yet it remains a remarkable composition: a lysergic roundel reminiscent of the Incredible String Band’s bleaker moments with a long, churning coda. “I Dreamed of the Caucusus”, from the same album, fairs better in being stripped due to its simple structure. Nearly pop, the song finds Krukowski delivering a rousing, redundant refrain, “I climbed down / just like water falling down / to the ground” with charismatic abandon.
Yang, switching throughout between the gentle toil of her organ and plucking low melodies on an electric bass, harmonizes with Krukowski on the Tim Buckley song the pair’s live album is named after. Eschewing the singer’s renown wavering intonations and dramatic presentation—poorly simulated on the version by This Mortal Coil on 1984’s It’ll End In Tears (4AD)—in favor of a more sober lollop, Damon and Naomi beautifully transpose Buckley’s yearning allegory into a tender reverie. The set also features other versions of material from defiantly obscure sources. First, a translation of Kazuki Tomokawa’s ” Watashi Wa Hanna”, itself an adaptation of a poem by the 1960’s serial-killer turned Symbolist poet Chuya Nakahara. Preceded by an account of revelry over whiskey and water with the renowned folk-singer, who apparently moonlights as a bookie for horse races, the song itself, re-titled “Flowers”, is a rather maudlin exercise in emotiveness. The group close with a song from the Jacks, Japanese psychedelists whose sole album, Vacant World, (Toshiba/EMI Japan) from 1968 is regarded by many as a masterpiece and who are, according to Krukowski, as canonized in their home country as the Velvet Undergound are in the US. “Love”, sung by Yang in its original Japanese, floats and dissolves like a nursery rhyme.
The group returns for an encore of “The Navigator”, apparently the first song ever written by the duo though not released until 1998, and “Tour of the World” from their second album, 1995’s The Wondrous World of (Sub Pop). Both are sung by Yang whose peculiar voice is both divinely ethereal and tenaciously tonal. Sharing the same spectral climate as “New York City”—also from the 1995 album and played earlier in the set—“Tour of the World” is a lovely conclusion. A languid hymn, it enumerates historic sites around the globe—ex. “the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum”—though affirmed, “I never go very far.” And one can only agree. Throughout an hour of sounds and words tracing congruent sentiments of passing and longing, Damon and Naomi remained fixed observers filling each paling moment with an elegiac half-light, drawing closely what is gone and fading fast.